Merleau-Ponty On The Organist


In his treatise on phenomenology, Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes compellingly on the role of our bodies in our experience of the world. Merleau-Ponty touches on musical experience here and there, so of course I blazed through the book in search of those heres and theres to see what he had to say. One striking passage concerns the example of an organist who is faced with a new organ but little time to prepare for a performance on it. Merleau-Ponty brings us through what a musician might do in this situation.

First, he gets to know the new organ, “he sizes up the instrument with his body, he incorporates its directions and dimensions, and he settles into the organ as one settles into a house” (146). Next is the problem of what exactly is rehearsed on the unfamiliar instrument. The answer is a series of gestures or physical moves that serve as explorations. The organist’s “rehearsal gestures…put forth affective vectors, they discover emotional sources, and they create an expressive space” (147). The organist’s gestures in turn reveal his habits of performance which may or may not fit the new instrument. The problem, says Merleau-Ponty, “is to determine how the musical signification of the gesture can be condensed into a certain locality to the extent that…the organist reaches for precisely the stops and the pedals that will actualize it” (147). In other words, will this new instrument actualize what the musician hopes to achieve through his gestures? Finally, the musician’s goal is to gain a connection with the new instrument and start playing. But where does music reside in all of this? In several places at once—in the score, in the organ sound, and in the relationship or what Merleau-Ponty calls the “passage” between the organist and the organ: “Between the musical essence of the piece such as it is indicated in the score and the music that actually resonates around the organ, such a direct relationship is established that the body of the organist and the instrument are nothing other than the place of passage of this relation” (147).

Later in the book, Merleau-Ponty clarifies what it means to make and listen to a musical sound. He distinguishes between three modalities of sound listening which he calls objective sound, atmospheric sound, and an unnamed “last stage” sound. Considering that Merleau-Ponty was not a musician himself, it’s quite a feat of imagining the different ways in which musicians hear music from inside the musical experience. These three sound modalities move us from listening to sound emanating from the instrument, to listening to how the sound vibrates within us so that we feel as we have become the instrument, and finally, to listening in such a way that it feels as if our sound-making has altered our entire selves. Merleau-Ponty: “there is an objective sound that resonates outside of me in the musical instrument, an atmospheric sound that is between the object and my body, a sound that vibrates in me ‘as if I had become the flute or the clock,’ and finally a last stage where the sonorous element disappears and becomes a highly precise experience of a modification of my entire body” (236).

Here is a recording of Merleau-Ponty discussing our perception of “sensible objects.” Though he doesn’t discuss music here, he does touch on painting, and more intriguingly, honey. “The unity of a thing is not behind each of its qualities” he says, “it is reaffirmed by each of them, each of them is the whole thing.”

And finally, here is an outstanding piece of organ music by Olivier Messiaen:

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